Welcome to the Malazan Reread of the Fallen! Every post will start off with a summary of events, followed by reaction and commentary by your hosts Bill and Amanda (with Amanda, new to the series, going first), and finally comments from Tor.com readers. In this article, we’ll cover chapter twelve of Dust of Dreams.
A fair warning before we get started: We’ll be discussing both novel and whole-series themes, narrative arcs that run across the entire series, and foreshadowing. Note: The summary of events will be free of major spoilers and we’re going to try keeping the reader comments the same. A spoiler thread has been set up for outright Malazan spoiler discussion.
Editor’s note: As most of you are probably aware, this novel and the resulting chapter discussions contain descriptions of violence and sexual violence that some readers may find upsetting; while the Reread will be devoting a separate discussion thread to the most extensive and conspicuous instance of these elements in an upcoming post, readers who may wish to avoid these topics should be aware that there is some limited discussion of these elements in today’s post.
Maral Eb, war leader of the Barahn White Face Barghast, is heading west after having slaughtered an Akrynnai caravan and is dreaming of killing Tool and becoming rich and powerful. Two of his scouts bring him a nearly-dead Snakehunter Barghast, who he questions as to what happened. The man, Benden Ledag, tells him he is the last of the Snakehunters, a survivor only because he ran like a coward, which he suggests the Barhan do as well. When Maral tells him they will instead avenge the Snakehunters, Benden smiles and says he’ll await them in hell.
Women of the Skincut (Ahkrata) discuss the bad omens lately, one of them—Ralata—saying she has “felt shadows in the night and the whisper of dread wings. Something stalks us.” The warleader, though, scorns her warnings. The warleader, Hessanrala, says they will follow the track of the Akrynnai merchant they’ve just killed north, but Ralata says it is foolish and refuses, saying she’ll return to the camp instead. She leaves alone, but once out of sight, worries that she is shirking her responsibility to the young women and turns to stealthily follow them, hoping she can save them from themselves.
Tool’s group (off to investigate the death of a lot of Barghast) passes by an old Imass kill site, and he regrets the animals having been hunted to extinction, thinking that the Ritual had allowed the Imass to “elude the rightful consequences of their profligacy, their shortsightedness.” Bakal asks how Tool could have sensed the Barghast’s deaths when even their shouldermen did not. The two spar verbally, and when Bakal notes that a thousand back at camp will challenge Tool due to his cowardice, Tool asks if Bakal has ever seen him fight. They continue.
Upset he once again is facing a war, Sceptre Irkullas of the Akrynnai prepares to attack the camp of the Nith’rithal Barghast, confident of victory.
A Nith’rithal picket guard sees the leading edge of the Akrynnai attack and is happy that his clan will soon get to bloody these fools. He dies.
Warleader Talt, who had ridden out earlier from the Nith’rithal camp to chase some Akrynnai raiders, decides to rest his war group. He notes the clouds on the horizon moving closer.
The Akrynnai raiders, having led Talt’s group by the nose until they were exhausted, all the way to where a larger force of Akrynnai wait, decide to turn and attack quickly before that closing storm arrives. They anticipate a “fine day of slaughter.” Inthalas, third daughter of the Sceptre, who has led the raiders, retreats off to the side to watch the battle. As Talt’s wargroup is surrounded, Bedit, one of Talt’s men, sees the nearing clouds lift and something “like white foam tumbling out.” The Barghast charge amidst thunder and lightning.
Inthalas is shocked to see the Barghast wedge drive through the massed Akrynnai and leads her knights to deal with the tip of the wedge, when suddenly the ground erupts and people and horses are thrown into the air. She looks to the west where the “storm” has hit and as she watches:
Something huge and solid loomed within the nearest cloud—towering to fill half the sky. And its base was carving a bow-wave before it, as if tearing up the earth itself… Lashing, actinic blades ripping out from the dark, heaving cloud, cutting blackened paths through Sagant’s lancers and the clumps of reeling foot-soldiers… in a crazed, terrifying web of charred destruction.
She sees a blinding light then dies.
Tool’s group finds the Snakehunter camp totally destroyed, the hills flattened and tumbled down. One of the Barghast mocks Tool for bringing them to their “enemy”—an earthquake—and challenges him. Tool points out the reasons it could not have been an earthquake, but Riggis ignores him. Tool asks if the warriors will die in challenges to Tool over the ground where other Barghast died, as if this is the way to honor their deaths. Tool tries to explain the undermining impact of leadership based on this right of challenge, of killing those who disagree with the warleader. Riggis charges him in the middle of the lecture and Took, in a blink’s moment, kills him. Tool tells Bakal and the others he will yield command to any who want it, “I will be the coward you want me to be. For what now comes, someone else will be responsible.” He warns them to gather the clans and march to Lether to ask for sanctuary if they want to save their people, for they face an enemy and a war they cannot win. Bakal refuses to challenge him (to Tool’s dismay), but when Tool says he will lead the Barghast from the plains, Bakal warns him only the Senan will follow. He asks that Tool tell them what he knows, that he “buy[s] our loyalty with the truth.” Tool agrees.
Maral Eb’s scouts tell him they’ve found Tool’s Senan war-party. They prepare to attack at night, with Maral telling them to would Tool only, not kill him. They attack. Tool senses the attack and tells Bakal to kill him, then shout Warleader Tool is dead! Bakal refuses, but Tool grabs his hand and does it himself. Tool dies.
Hearing the cries that Tool is dead, Maral Eb calls off the attack, thinking his way now lies open to dominance.
Hetan feels Tool’s death as a dream and wakes to grit on her lips. Their dog whines, their son cries, and she knows it for the truth.
Ralata watches over the five other Barghast women, noting their horses shifting in terror and wonders why the women do not wake. She creeps closer and finds them all dead, smells something like “an oily bitterness… of serpents.” Noting the wounds and wondering at the quickness and silence of the killings, she recalls the K’Chain Che’Malle outside Coral. Looking closer, she thinks the wounds are different, but the smell is the same. She feels wind suddenly and duck as something huge flies overhead. She tracks its direction, thinking of vengeance.
Torrent, riding in the Wastelands, runs into Olar Ethil, as she complains “The fool. I needed him.” She tells him Toc the Younger, the one-eyed Herald, begged her on Torrent’s behalf, adding that Toc has been busy lately. He asks if Toc will come again and she answers, “As they shall, to their regret, soon discover, the answer is yes.”
In Maral Eb’s camp, Tool’s body has been torn apart and scattered, the bones as well, though they could not break his flint sword. Bakal watches all in anger, and with a sense of guilt as well. When one of his fellow Senan, Strahl, asks about informing Maral of the enemy Tool was worried about, Bakal says no. When the Senan warrior says that means Maral will lead them to their deaths, Bakal replies that the Senan will just have to cut themselves loose and head for Lether. Strahl thinks how Maral the others will hobble Hetan and kill Tool’s children, and how the Senan would have joined in, yet now they sit “ashes in our mouths, dust in our hearts.” When he wonders what Tool has done to them, Bakal answers, “He showed us the burden of an honourable man… To think we called him coward.” They agree that they had failed Tool.
Yan Tovis continues with her people on the Road to Gallan, many of them dying, starving, dehydrated, darkness closing around them. She does not seem to know how to get off the road, until she realizes that “the darkness comes from within,” and opens her eyes to find her and her people near a rush of “black water on stony shores… run [ning] between the charred tree-stumps climbing the hillsides… to a silent, unlit ruins of a vast city. The city. Kharkanas.” She thinks, “The Shake are home,” but realizes the city is dead.
Yedan Derryg sets the camp then rides past wreckage and the detritus of long-decayed corpses through the gate into the city.
It is starting to reach the point where absolutely nothing about the Barghast is pleasant. I know that some people are saying that actually the Barghast and what they do to each other and their enemies rings true in terms of tribal life that actually exists in our world—but, damn, they really don’t seem to have any redeeming features at all.
Have to say, I think that the merchant who took a knife to her daughters and then to her own throat was incredibly sensible, knowing what the Barghast are capable of doing, and how rape-happy they are as a culture (and, damn, the fact that I even have to write something like that sort of points the direction as to why I am struggling. Sure, it happens. Sure, you have posted links to real life examples of brutality. But, in my escapist fantasy fiction, why do we have to go to that extent? I’m sure there will be much debate on this. And sorry, Bill, I didn’t mean to get into the meat of “that” discussion.
It comes across as distinctly odd to me that Maral Eb is so fervently against all the Barghast, as he thinks about killing all of Humbrall Taur’s line—but then wants vengeance on whoever killed the Snakehunters. I guess they just like war. Or it’s like those couples who bitch at each other, but won’t allow anyone else to do the bitching and get all angry and defend the person they usually bitch at if it happens.
One thing that I will acknowledge about the Barghast and their desire to cause pain and humiliate their enemies—at least it is equal opportunity nastiness, and the women are just as involved. Would have seemed odd if either the women or the men had not committed atrocities to the same level. I suppose that can also be discussed—whether it is somehow harder to read women doing these same things?
How did these Ahkrata women come upon Moranth armour?
I love Tool’s melancholy reflections on his past life and how he has come to be where he is, and the things he has seen. He is such a grave and dignified character and it feels absolutely wretched that he is now stuck among the Barghast, who do not have the patience or wisdom to see the truth in what he says. Who, in fact, regard him with suspicion: “This gauging, uneasy regard of the foreigner who would lead the mighty White Faces to what all believed was a righteous, indeed a holy war.”
I wish in some ways that Tool wasn’t the person he is, that he did feel able to sacrifice members of his own tribe in order to cause the fear that he needs to rule them. And, reading that back, it’s an awful thing to wish, and Tool is absolutely in the right not to do so. But, if they feared him and his awesome capabilities, then perhaps the Barghast could be used as an effective tool, rather than being the fractured people that they are. This is also picked up well in the later scene featuring Riggis’ challenge towards Tool for Warleader status: “Were you Warleader, Riggis,” Tool said, still standing relaxed, hands at his sides, “would you slay your best warriors simply to prove your right to rule?” When told yes, Tool then says: “Then, you would command out of a lust for power, not out of a duty to your people.”
Ouch, is hard to read Sceptre Irkullas’ thoughts about how tired he is of war and how much he enjoys playing with his grandchildren—this poor guy screams ‘death’. I can’t imagine he is going to make it through many more pages (although he does seem badass), especially when we read: “...he had led the warriors of the Akrynnai for three decades, at the head of the most-feared cavalry on the plains, and not once had he been defeated.”
The image of those crazed Barghast charging uphill, lit by flickering lightning and gloomy stormclouds, is incredibly powerful in my head. It is frightening and eerie. “Darkness was swallowing the day, and the flashes of lightning from the west provided moments of frozen clarity as the battle was joined now on all sides.”
Umm, I feel really dense because I STILL don’t know what is hidden in these clouds. The only thing I am guessing at is sky keeps, and that other form of K’Chain Che’Malle that are the mortal enemies of those we are currently following. I could be very, very wrong. I’d love to hear other guesses from first time readers?
“...we break the most sacred law of the White Faces…” Which law is this? To not ambush one another? They seem quite petty enough in committing war on each other!
Oh Tool… He knows that death is coming for his Senan warriors, and sacrifices himself in order that they might live. Even despite the way they have acted towards him. And even knowing that his death opens up Hetan and their children to retribution from the other members of the tribe. This death leaves me feeling so impotent.
And poor, poor Hetan. Knowing the moment of her husband’s death, but believing it to be only a dream, and then to have it confirmed so cruelly.
Alright! So Olar Ethil. I whipped back through our reread to see where we’d seen this name before. We’re talking an Eleint, who changes into an undead dragon. We’re talking ‘First among the Bonecasters, the First Soletaken’—so also T’lan Imass. And also, we find out here, someone who kissed Anomander Rake! Probably not looking the same as she does right now…
Ugh, the Barghast desecrate bodies as well: “Onos Toolan’s body had been torn apart, the flesh deboned and pieces of him scattered everywhere. His bones had been systematically shattered, the fragments strewn about. His skull had been crushed.”
Ahh, but here the first sign of sense and caution from any Barghast! I’m foolishly fond of Bakal, purely because he didn’t want to kill Tool—in fact, dislocated his arm to avoid it—then didn’t take the leadership at all, and is now suggesting that the Senan break away from the rest of the Barghast. And I love this: “To think,” he muttered, “we called him coward.” Nice to know that finally Bakal and Strahl understand what Tool was trying to do.
Uh oh: “They will hobble her and kill the spawn.”
Generally, it’s been my experience, and especially in this series, that when someone starts making plans of how they will become rich and powerful and triumphant, will build something “impregnable,” on the way to “glory,” well, let’s just say that doesn’t tend to work out as planned.
There’s a running idea of having the option to run, to take the “coward’s” way out. Of being cautious. Unfortunately, there’s also the running plot line of choosing neither. We see it with Maral after the warning from Benden (whom we saw earlier if you recall, right before what struck the Snakehunters struck). And we see it with Ralata.
Another point about Ralata is that she is a nice exception to the mostly unremittingly ugly view of the Barghast we get.
The idea of extinction has also run throughout the series, and humanity’s (writ broadly) role in the acceleration of extinction (looking forward to reading The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert on that very topic) and here it is again at the kill/jump site of the Imass and that sad progressive list: “Until all the tenag were gone, and with the okral, and indeed the ay—and the wind was hollow and empty of life, no howls, no shrill trumpeting from bull tenag, and even the bhed had given way to their smaller cousins. There’s a wonderful vividness and authority to the details here on the kill site (no surprise given the author’s profession), as well as a wonderfully moving elegiac tone. And I love the way all of that is deepened by it being filtered through the perception of a T’lan Imass—a race that has seemingly outlived its own extinction. A race that drove others into extinction while cheating death themselves. Had allowed them, as Tool thinks, to “elude the rightful consequences of their profligacy, their shortsightedness.” And then there is yet another layer, the idea that just as Tool could have driven the herds to death and extinction over the precipice, he, as leader, could do the same with the Barghast. Lead them against the enemy he knows is out there, and thus over the edge to oblivion.
War is certainly not glorified here on the Wastelands. Whom does one root for between the Barghast and the Akrynnai? The ones who will “kill every adult and every youth near blooding” and sell the children into slavery? Or the ones “kill the children and rape the young ones”? Who would mourn if the Wastelands were wiped clean of both as one says about doing to the other?
As eventually happens, thanks to those bolts coming from the clouds, destroying both sides, making no distinction between them. So I apparently jumped the gun a bit on identifying what those clouds signified in earlier chapters. I won’t do that here, but I will point to the clue we get about how there is something in the clouds: Something huge and solid… towering to fill half the sky.” And we haven’t seen many things that would fit that description, so…
That’s a nice shift, from the horror of the sheer death and destruction being handed out by those clouds in present time narration to the witnessing by Tool and his group to the end result of the same attack on the Snakehunters.
Sure, Tool is being insightful, wise, and offering fair warning, but you had to know reading his dialogue that it was washing right over the ears of Riggis and the others. “Perplexed” is indeed the appropriate last look on Riggis’ face, though not just over how he died, but how he came to die as well. His lack of understanding led to his lack of understanding his death.
But maybe, just maybe, there’s a glimmer of hope in Bakal, who not too long ago had seemed just as “deaf” as Riggis. Of course, Riggis didn’t have the benefit of the lesson Bakal just had—Riggis’ amazingly fast death. It is nice to see it isn’t, however, merely fear of Tool’s sword that drives Bakal, though the pragmatic nature of recognizing the futility of challenging him is a large part of it. But beyond that, Bakal wants more—he wants more from a leader, from a relationship between leader and followers—than Tool just so witheringly described. Which nicely sets up the reader for when Bakal thinks of cutting the Senan free from Maral after Tool’s death.
And what a death that is. A sacrifice for his warriors’ lives (those who most opposed him too, remember), knowing what it will mean for his wife and his children. I’m curious what people think about this scene. Did Tool do the right thing? Did he have any choice? Could he have fought his way free and then tried to reach his family? Could he have tried? Would it have been OK to sacrifice not only his warriors, but all those attacking Barghast in order to save himself and his family? Could he have killed himself and not put that cruel burden on Bakal? Or was that burden necessary to continue the changes in Bakal?
That’s a lovely if heart-breaking moment afterward in Hetan’s tent—the dream she had (and a nice writerly detail of the air “suffocating as a shroud”), the grit on her lips, her belief it was only a dream, one she forces back out of mind, until the dog, and then the child.
So why does Gu’Rull kill the Barghast that Ralata finds?
Poor Torrent, hooking up with Olar Ethil. Not the best partner, one might imagine. Note her line as he comes across her: “The fool. I needed him.” Probably a good assumption, considering the timing and her connection with the Imass that she is speaking of Tool here and his death—so what did she need him for? And is she thinking of using Torrent in his stead?
So, Rake and Olar smooching. Can’t recall if we knew that already.
And what is keeping Toc so busy as Hood’s Herald?
There certainly have been lots of clues as to where Gallan’s Road might lead the Shake. But I like how we are in Yan Tovis’ mind when she makes that key realization about the “darkness,” which allows her people to exit the road and finally arrive at Kharkanas, which is not a trip of distance as she’d been thinking of it (at least, that’s how I’m reading that). Though the destination falls just a little short of what she and her people were hoping for. Save Yedan Derryg, whose insights impress the more we see of him. And that’s a great close, the image of that gate, the “dust on the cobbles black as crushed coal,” the “Walk on, horse,” and the line that conjures up an image of pomp and circumstance and glory—the “return of the king” but in the visuals is just the opposite.
Note: We remind you to please hold off on discussion of Hetan and the surrounding events until our separate post. We are currently making our plans for it and trying to work around Steven’s schedule so he can be at least somewhat involved in the discussion, though he has already been gracious enough to send us a little something to chew over.
Amanda Rutter is the editor of Strange Chemistry books, sister imprint to Angry Robot.